Moral Neuroenhancement

Chapter: Moral Neuroenhancement

Douglas, T., Earp, B. D. and Savulescu, J., (2017), 'Moral Neuroenhancement'. in K. Rommelfanger and L. Johnson, (Eds.)  Routledge Handbook of Neuroethics. (Routledge, New York.  

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In recent years, philosophers, neuroethicists, and others have become preoccupied with “moral enhancement.” Very roughly, this refers to the deliberate moral improvement of an individual’s character, motives, or behavior. In one sense, such enhancement could be seen as “nothing new at all” (Wiseman, 2016, 4) or as something philosophically mundane: as G. Owen Schaefer (2015) has stated, “Moral enhancement is an ostensibly laudable project. … Who wouldn’t want people to become more moral?” (261). To be sure, humans have long sought to morally enhance themselves (and their children) through such largely uncontroversial means as moral education, meditation or other “spiritual” practices, engagement with moral ideas in literature, philosophy, or religion, and discussion of moral controversies with others. What is different about the recent debate is that it focuses on a new set of potential tools for fostering such enhancement, which might broadly be described as “neurotechnologies.” These technologies, assuming that they worked, would work by altering certain brain states or neural functions directly, in such a way as to bring about the desired moral improvement.

What exactly this would look like and the mechanisms involved are unclear. As John Shook (2012, 6) notes: “There is no unified cognitive system responsible for the formation and enaction of moral judgments, because separable factors are more heavily utilized for some kinds of moral judgments rather than others.” Moreover, “the roles of emotions in moral appreciation and judgment, alongside (and intertwining with) social cognition and deliberate reasoning, are so complex that research is only starting to trace how they influence kinds of intuitive judgment and moral conduct.”

Nevertheless, suggestions in the literature for possible means of pursuing moral enhancement by way of direct modulation of brain-level targets—at least in certain individuals, under certain circumstances or conditions— abound. These suggestions range from the exogenous administration of neurohormones such as oxytocin (in combination with appropriate psychological therapy or social modification) to potentially increase “pro-social attitudes, like trust, sympathy and generosity” (Savulescu and Persson, 2012, 402; see also Donaldson and Young, 2008; but see Bartz et al., 2011; Lane et al., 2015, 2016; Nave et al., 2015; Wudarczyk et al., 2013) to the alteration of serotonin or testosterone levels to mitigate undue aggression while at the same time ostensibly enhancing fair-mindedness, willingness to cooperate, and aversion to harming others (e.g., Crockett, 2014; Montoya et al., 2012; Savulescu and Persson, 2012; but see Wiseman, 2014, re: serotonin) to the application of newly developed brain modulation techniques, such as noninvasive (but see Davis and Koningsbruggen, 2013) transcranial electric or magnetic stimulation or even deep brain stimulation via implanted electrodes (for scientific overviews, see, e.g., Fregni and Pascual-Leone, 2007; Perlmutter and Mink, 2005; for ethical overviews, see, e.g., Clausen, 2010; Hamilton et al., 2011; Maslen et al., 2014; Rabin et al., 2009; Synofzik and Schlaepfer, 2008).

Potential uses of brain stimulation devices for moral enhancement include attempts to reduce impulsive tendencies in psychopaths (Glenn and Raine, 2008; but see Maibom, 2014), as well as efforts to treat addiction and improve self-control, thereby making associated “immoral behavior” less likely (Savulescu and Persson, 2012, 402). In addition, some research has shown that disruptive stimulation of the right prefrontal cortex or the temporoparietal junction can affect moral judgments directly—for example, judgments relating to fairness and harm (Knoch et al., 2016; Young et al., 2010); however, the circumstances of these and other similar investigations have been thus far largely contrived, such that the real-world implications of the findings are not yet apparent (Wiseman, 2016). More ecologically valid results pertain to the administration of drugs such as methylphenidate or lithium to violent criminals with ADHD or to children with conduct disorder to reduce aggressive behavioral tendencies (see, e.g., Ginsberg et al., 2013, 2015; Ipser and Stein, 2007; Margari et al., 2014; Turgay, 2009), as well as antilibidinal agents to reduce sexual desire in convicted sex offenders (Douglas et al., 2013; Lösel and Schumucker, 2005; Thibaut et al., 2010). Such measures remain controversial, however, both ethically (Craig, 2016; Earp et al., 2014; Gupta, 2012; Singh, 2008) and conceptually, that is, in terms of their status as moral enhancers as opposed to mere forms of “behavioral control” (see Focquaert and Schermer, 2015; see also McMillan, 2014).

To date, the majority of the philosophical literature on moral enhancement has been oriented around two main strands of thought: (1) Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu’s argument that there is “an urgent imperative to enhance the moral character of humanity” and to pursue research into moral neuroenhancements as a possible means to this end (2008, 162; see also 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) and (2) Thomas Douglas’s and David DeGrazia’s arguments that it would sometimes be morally permissible (in Douglas’s case) or morally desirable (in DeGrazia’s case) for individuals to voluntarily pursue moral neuroenhancements of certain kinds (e.g., DeGrazia, 2014; Douglas, 2008).

Both strands of thought have been subjected to vigorous criticism (for an overview, see Douglas, 2015; see also Parens, 2013). For their part, Persson and Savulescu have primarily been interested in whether humanity falls under an imperative to pursue or promote the development of technologies that would enable moral neuroenhancement on some description. However, even if there is such an imperative, it might turn out that it would be morally impermissible to deploy any of the technologies that would be developed. On the other hand, even if there is no imperative to pursue such technologies, it might be morally permissible or even morally desirable (or obligatory) for people to use some moral neuroenhancers that nevertheless become available. Thus, there is a further question regarding the moral status of engaging in (as opposed to developing the technologies for) moral neuroenhancement, and it is this question to which we will confine ourselves in this chapter. First, however, it is important to clarify what we mean by the term “moral neuroenhancement” and to show that such a thing could ever be possible. We will start by laying out some definitions.

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